Ok, the easy part is over, and now comes the really difficult stretch for Bruce Weber and the Fighting Illini men's basketball team. With a conference schedule that was front loaded with some easy games, the Illini have made the most of it by going 7-3 through the first 10 games of Big 10 play, but a juggernaut of toughies await, starting with Michigan State (8:00 pm, Saturday ESPN). The game against the Spartans is big on many fronts, the first and most obvious reason being the presence of ESPN and their Game Day crew being in Champaign for the game. Out of 343 Division 1 schools that play college basketball, only 8 teams get the designation of being selected as a destination of Game Day. This year, Champaign and the University of Illinois is one such lucky school. But, first the matter at hand is to find a way to defeat the Spartans, who are on top in the conference this season with a 9-1 mark. They were defeated quite handily at Wisconsin earlier in the week, and in addition to losing the game, may have lost their point guard and Big Ten player of the year candidate Kalin Lucas to a sprained ankle. Lucas let go a shot outside the arc, and came down hard on the ankle, and is currently listed as day-to-day. Ouch! Generally with a high ankle sprain, those take a little longer to heal, but Lucas is resilient, so we'll see if he plays against the Illini. You never wish an injury on anyone, and if the Illini are to defeat the Spartans, I would like to see them do it at full strength. I have the utmost respect for Coach Tom Izzo and the Michigan State program in general, but if this injury is worse than projected, then the Spartans may have just brought themselves down to the level of everyone else in the league. After the Michigan State game, the Illini go to Wisconsin (Feb. 9), play Ohio State at home (Feb. 14), then Purdue on the road (Feb. 20), followed by a trip to Michigan to play the Wolverines, who are always tough at Crisler Arena. Yikes! That is a tough stretch of games, and earlier losses to Utah, Bradley and Georgia are really starting to look bad now when it comes to talking about the NCAA Tournament. That is why it is imperative for the Illini to take care of business at home and try to steal 1 of the upcoming road games. This is a task that seems monumental, and for intensive purposes, it probably is. I still think that the Illini can go 4-4 over the final 8 games of the Big Ten schedule and still get in the Big Dance, provided that they win at least 1 game in the Big Ten Tournament. But, maybe I'm getting a little ahead of myself. The task at hand is the Spartans.
Did I mention the Game Day crew is in town? The bus rolled into campus on Monday, and I was fortunate to get a tour of the bus, meet the driver, and ask questions about how life is inside this coach. Inside are at least 8 or 9 flat screen televisions that the crew of Rece Davis, Hubert Davis, Jay Bilas and Digger Phelps use to watch games to pass the time away when they are not doing their live, "on location" shows, one of which will take place this Saturday at the Assembly Hall. Since it is a rare opportunity to have the Game Day experience here in town, who knows when it will come back, if it ever does! The event on Saturday is free and open to the public. Doors will open at 8:00 am, with the first people through the door getting the best chance to be on television. They will fill in the west side of the hall behind where the crew will do their live show, then spread out from there if the need arises. Last week the crew was in Manhattan, Kansas where they set the record for attendance with over 8100 fans. I'm not saying that Illinois will break the record, but we have an opportunity to do so. The show will air live from 10-11 on Saturday morning, then before the Illini tip it off with Michigan State later that evening, they will do another 1 hour live show recapping the day's activities and other games from around the country. Given the history of the relationship between the Illinois program and Digger Phelps, this should be interesting. As of now, there are no plans for Bob Knight, who sometimes is a member of the crew, to be in town. Wouldn't THAT be something? And our old friend Dick Vitale will be broadcasting the game that evening with Dan Shulman and Erin Andrews as sideline reporter. Oh, what fun!
Wednesday was football letter of intent signing day for schools all over, and the Illini signed 20 players to the program. Since the overhaul of coaches in the off-season, the recruiting kind of went a different way than originally planned. A lot of commits backed out at the last minute due to varying reasons, and the new coaches that came in tried to fill needs in their respective units. One of the more notable signees, Chandler Whitmer, is already enrolled in school and will battle immediately for the quarterback spot with Nathan Scheelhaase and Jacob Charest. The face of the program for the last few years, Juice Williams, is gone now, so a new face will need to emerge. But, who will that person be? Looking at this class from a talent perspective, there isn't really anything that jumps right out at you. In the Big Ten as a whole, the Illini's class has been ranked dead last. Coming off a 3-9 season, that doesn't bode well for the future. Instead of battling it out with the likes of Florida and Ohio State for some of these players, Marshall and Arkansas State is more along the lines of the caliber of some of these players. I don't care who you are, that's not going to win you many games and turn around a program that has been once again driven into the ground. Players want to go somewhere that they will be successful, both from a personal and team standpoint. Clearly, Illinois is not headed in that direction. I really can't see the Illini any better than 6-6 for the 2010 season. I hope I'm wrong, but the facts don't lie.